[Movie Review] THE ANCESTRAL

Sleep paralysis, the state of being conscious but unable to move or speak during a sleep cycle, digs its roots in folklore. Although the phenomenon has a variety of cultural interpretations, the overall consensus is that it is deeply tied to an evil presence. Beliefs range from the presence of a witch or demon to the foretelling of a tragedy or accident In The Ancestral, director Le-Van Kiet explores sleep paralysis through the lens of coping with the loss of a loved one, or rather the haunting of the ghost of a loved one. Its opening credits explain how during sleep paralysis “one may not be able to distinguish between reality or nightmares.”

After the death of his wife, Thành (Quang Tuan) and his two daughters, Linh (Lâm Thanh My) and Yen (Mai Cát Vi) move to their ancestral home. Thành hoped that the move would help the family recover, particularly Yen, the youngest daughter, who has been suffering through walking nightmares. Their new home is quite remote. It is obscured by an expanse of greenery that opens up to an imposing old mansion, adorned with Doric pillars and a wooden columned roof. Tall darkened passageways envelop the home, a motif that continues to not phase characters in horror movies.

The film seems to be experienced through Linh’s eyes, the protective older sister who is now starting to see some strange figures looming in the house. As time goes on, Yen’s sleepwalking and nightmares morph into paralysis. Thành decides to seek help from a tutor, Ms. Hanh (Dieu Nhi), but something is off with her and Linh is growing suspicious. Ms. Hanh becomes overly consumed by Yen’s nightmares, and instead of healing her, her paralysis gets worse. The house keeps opening up to more passages with strange voices and visions, and as time goes on, the line between nightmare and reality thins.

From the onset, THE ANCESTRAL is ridden with jump scares. It opens with a woman being interviewed while holding her baby in a hammock. She talks about her fear of her own mother’s sleep paralysis bringing harm to her child. It cuts to a found footage shot of her mom tossing in bed that leads to a pretty scary jump scare, which sets up the plot for the rest of the film. I appreciate a horror movie where the jump scares do not follow any rules. They are not always built up and can happen at any time, although the soundtrack, laden with foreboding whispers and unusual noises, does tend to give too much of a lead.

The first half of THE ANCESTRAL has a pretty compelling, albeit not fully inspired plot. By following one old creaky figure, it seemed like the direction was straightforward and clean as it called back to the old mom in the opening scene. But halfway through, the introduction of Ms. Hanh started tearing at the seams of the plot. There is more to this house than meets the eye, but that reveal, while adding more texture to the story, takes away the intrigue and fear of these lurking figures.

Despite the clunky plot in the last half of the film, THE ANCESTRAL achieves what it set out to do: explore how grief affects a family and the many obstacles a family must face and overcome before learning how to adapt to a life without their mom. The acting was overall pretty well done and I enjoyed following Linh’s reckless but brave curiosity about the evil ghouls lurking about. What was most compelling about her character, however, was how quickly she had to mature and fill the role of a motherly figure for Yen. But while the family’s recovery and adaptation to a new normal was tended to throughout the film, Yen’s battle with sleep paralysis felt abandoned.

The cinematography and atmosphere hit the right notes throughout the film. It was not inundated with bad effects, although some managed to be simultaneously scary and silly. One knock-out creepy scene called back to the hammock in the opening interview, but this time an evil force traps Linh in its web, showcasing how simple effects can really pay off for a good scare.

Overall, THE ANCESTRAL failed at creating something new and polished for the genre, but it is a captivating watch that has something to say.

THE ANCESTRAL is now streaming on Screambox.

Natalie Hall
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